Complex Trauma, Emotional Overwhelm, and Self-Harming Behavior

This article includes an honest discussion about self-harming behavior. No triggering information is shared, but it is a highly triggering topic to some. Caution is advised.

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readNov 20, 2023

Everyone experiences being overwhelmed at times. Perhaps your job has become more complicated while something is happening at home. However, emotional overwhelm can cause enormous problems for those who experience it and can make self-harming more likely.

This article will focus on emotional overwhelm and how it influences self-harming behavior.

We cannot discuss self-harm and emotional overwhelm without first talking about complex trauma. Complex trauma involves pain that occurs in childhood and can be experienced by adults as well.

In childhood, complex trauma is caused by living in a home where the child is not protected or cared about. The childhood hurt and betrayal that come with complex trauma leave the person feeling alone, disconnected, and sometimes filled with self-hate or disgust.

Some people recognize from early childhood that, in adulthood, their behaviors and choices are directly linked to what happened to them as a child. Others remain unaware that their childhood has caused them great harm until much later in life. Either way, complex trauma leaves scars that cannot be forgotten but can be treated.

Adults are also vulnerable to experiencing complex trauma, and it can occur when the adult experiences violence at home, in the neighborhood, or at work. The events that consist of trauma include physical, emotional, financial, sexual, or spiritual distress. Some adults experience re-traumatization of repeated traumatic experiences in treatment.

It is vital to keep in mind that complex trauma is treatable, and healing is possible.

What is Emotional Overwhelm?

Emotional overwhelm describes a state of being overcome by strong, complex emotions. Emotional overwhelm affects one’s ability to think and then act rationally and can prevent you from doing everyday jobs.

Being emotionally overwhelmed is often caused by stress, relationship issues, and traumatic life experiences, either in the present or in the past. If you find out you are emotionally overwhelmed; you will need the help of a mental health professional.

Emotional overwhelm happens when the power of your feelings overwhelms your ability to manage them. People are most likely overwhelmed by negative emotions such as guilt, fear, or anger. Some people who have mania are also overwhelmed by feelings of euphoria.

There are many signs you are emotionally overwhelmed; however, it is difficult to pinpoint precisely why. Below, we have only listed a few of the signs.

  • You are disproportionately reactive to insignificant situations in your life.
  • You cannot focus or complete simple tasks.
  • You withdraw from family and friends.
  • You feel tired or physically ill without understanding why.
  • Your emotions control your perception of the world.
  • You have insomnia and problems going to sleep, and staying asleep.
  • You experience changes in your appetite.
  • You feel depressed and anxious.
  • You have flashbacks of stressful or traumatic events.
  • Feeling sad for no reason, even during good times.

Emotional overwhelm challenges the person experiencing it, and until it is recognized for what it is and treated, life will be hard.

Emotional Overwhelm and Self-Harm

Emotional overwhelm, primarily resulting from complex trauma, is very distressing and uncomfortable and often shows up as maladaptive anger, seemingly endless worrying, and an increase in irritability. The person who is overwhelmed may exhibit behaviors that go along with difficulty breathing, racing heartbeat, or muscle tension with chest discomfort.

It isn’t difficult to see how a person experiencing emotional overwhelm might become self-destructive and look to self-harm to relieve the suffering. Self-harming behaviors relieve the pressure one feels when overwhelmed, even if that feeling is fleeting. Unfortunately, when one comes down from the slight euphoria caused by self-harm, the problems that drove the person to it remain.

Many of the causes of emotional overwhelm and the reasons people self-harm overlap a great deal and include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impulse-control disorders
  • Dissociative disorders, especially dissociative identity disorder
  • Gender dysphoria
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse disorder

While it is understandable why someone entirely overwhelmed by their circumstances and emotions might turn to self-harm, these behaviors can quickly turn to suicidality.

How to Help Yourself Quit Self-Harming

While there is no magic answer to fix self-harming quickly, you can make at least four changes to help yourself end your behavior before it takes your life. These four changes may include accepting your feelings, building your self-esteem, understanding the reasons you self-harm, and reaching out for the help you need.

It is critical to consider working closely with a therapist while you re-discover emotions you have denied yourself for months or years.

It is your life to build as you see fit, and learning how to like yourself will help you go far.

By examining and questioning yourself and learning new ways of coping, you will gain more self-control when you are triggered.

Just remind yourself that everybody needs help sometimes and that reaching out is not a weakness but a strength.

Ending Our Time Together

Emotional overwhelm is something all humanity experiences at least once in our lives. It can build from simple things that add up or happen because of sudden situational changes.

I have experienced emotional overwhelm many times in my life, especially when I was a child. Being the victim of horrendous domestic violence, I faced my overwhelm by hiding inside myself and making two suicide attempts. Thankfully, I survived, and I have learned many coping skills to avoid being completely taken aback to avoid self-harming behaviors.

It isn’t easy to not harm yourself if you have been doing it for very long. Self-harm does bring temporary relief from the feeling of being overwhelmed, but the feeling is fleeting and is often replaced with self-hatred and shame.

It is critical that you reach out to a therapist, counselor, or any other mental health professional to get the help you need to end your self-harming behaviors. Yes, I realize it is hard to admit to anyone that you hurt yourself, but you needn’t be ashamed. Self-harm is a natural consequence of emotional overwhelm that has become too real to handle on your own.

If you self-harm, you’ll need to find a therapist that is a good fit for you. One place to look is find-a-therapist sites such as Psychology Today or

Another resource you can try is your insurance company. They will have a list of therapists that fit within your coverage.

Hang in there; you are not alone.

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
― Shel Silverstein

“I like the night. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.”
― Stephenie Meyer

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.